Bradley Wright Phillips
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

On Sunday, the New York Red Bulls will host the team that beat them in the MLS Eastern Conference final last season.

The final whistle of New York Red Bulls last match versus Atlanta United was one of the most painful sounds in the club’s history. It was the end of another season without lifting the MLS Cup.

Not just any season, but a season in which they registered the most points ever in an MLS campaign while downing Atlanta, 2-0, with their fans screaming, “You can’t beat us!” They beat Atlanta that game and took the Supporters’ Shield by two points, but couldn’t win the war: the MLS Cup.

RBNY’s hard-working midfielder Alex Muyl depressingly threw himself on the turf after hearing the final whistle of the MLS Eastern Conference Final. Former New York starlet Tyler Adams smashed the ball forward with rage.

It was Adams’s last game in a New York jersey and it had to be one of the most heartbreaking matches in the history of the team.

Tim Parker, one of the toughest defenders in the MLS, sadly put his head down before bending over with his hands over his knee.


Meanwhile, the Atlanta players raised their hands up with joy. They later jumped together to celebrate their trip to the MLS final. Their away fans were roaring behind them while waving their flags at Red Bull Arena, New York’s home.

German midfielder Marc Rzatkowski squatted down, sinking his head in his palms. It was over. No MLS Cup again in their 22nd season. That promising two-year-old team from Georgia beat them to it.

“It’s tough right now,” The Metros captain Luis Robles said via Atlanta United’s website. “I think even a part of me is numb to all of it because of the overwhelming amount of disappointment.”

Funny enough, RBNY did win the match, 1-0. But they lost the first game of the Eastern Conference final, 3-0, to go down 3-1 on aggregate.

New York had been suffocating teams all season long. But they were the ones gasping for air at the electrifying Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 25, 2018, in their 3-0 loss to the Georgia based club. Atlanta outshot them, 13-6, New York hit just one of their shots on frame while the United had five shots on target.

Atlanta had more energy than a New York team who’s known for having energy. They recorded 11 fouls and RBNY, seven.

“We lost our aggressiveness and we weren’t ourselves as much,” the Red Bulls’ head coach Chris Armas said via the New York Post Kyle Schnitzer. “…We lost the series in Leg 1. We didn’t make enough plays on either end of the field.”

Atlanta’s star player Josef Martinez opened the scoring of the 3-0 beatdown in the 32nd minute with a header. Parker failed to clear the ball with his head and New York’s right back Michael Murillo froze behind Martinez. Parker and Murillo argued after the goal.

What made this loss even more painful is Bradley Wright-Phillips actually tied the match 1-1 in the 53rd minute and shushed the crowd after scoring. But his goal was later rightly ruled out because Muyl was standing in an offside position.

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Franco Escobar then netted a screaming shot from the box to make it 2-0 for Atlanta in the 71st minute before Hector Villalba closed the scoring, 3-0, with an exquisite low-shot from outside the box in the fifth minute of added time.

The New York players truly believed that they could turn the series around. Scoring against the United wasn’t something new. They had done so five times in their previous two encounters.

“We can score against Atlanta because we already have, you know,” Wright-Phillips said in a press conference via NewYorkRedBulls.com.

And that’s what made the loss in the second leg at home even more heartbreaking because they knew they were able to win turns things around.

“I know leaving Atlanta down 3-0 really frames what is going to be a difficult task,” Robles said, “and yet there was so much optimism because one, the quality of the guys in this locker room, two, the ability that we feel we possess to overturn such a deficit, and then three, there’s just so much belief within this organization, within this locker room that we could do it.

“When it doesn’t work out, I think there’s just a lot of disappointment right now.”

The 3-0 massacre was the only loss the Red Bulls ever received from Atlanta. Yes, New York even defeated Atlanta at the electrifying Mercedes-Benz Stadium, 3-1, on May 20, 2018. Armas’s men are 3-1 against the MLS champions, outscoring them, 6-4.

The playoff exit to Atlanta hurt Wright-Phillips so much that he went as far as smashing stuff.

“It’s still annoying me now but my wife took me to this place called The Wrecking Club,” the Englishman said. “You can buy like a TV, like plasma, printers, keyboards to smash up. I got a crowbar, a sledgehammer and I just smashed things up and I feel better.”

There’s no need to go to The Wrecking Club anymore, Atlanta is coming to town this weekend. New York will welcome The Five Stripes on Sunday at 5:00 p.m. ET at Red Bull Arena, where the United celebrated the 2018 Eastern Conference title that could’ve been New York’s.

It’s the Red Bulls glorious chance to secure an avenging win over Atlanta. It won’t be easy. Atlanta did go winless in their first four MLS matches of the season, but they look much more like themselves now. Atlanta won their last four outings without conceding a goal while scoring seven. They sit on a 5W-2D-3L record.

RBNY owns a 4W-2D-5L record. New York has been poor and inconsistent this season. For example, they got the best out of F.C. Dallas, 3-1, last weekend but lost to Montreal Impact, 2-1, in their previous match after a substandard performance.

The Red Bulls’ inconsistency has put their fans’ hearts on a roller-coaster ride. It seemed as if New York was back to their old selves after winning two straight games from April 27 to March 4, but then they lost their following match to the Impact. And then jumped back on the winning column last week against Dallas.

RBNY has another chance to go on a winning streak to prove that they’re getting their swagger from last season back. New York cannot lose on Sunday, especially since they’re playing that three-year-old team from Georgia who won the Eastern Conference over them at their home pitch.

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